The name “acid western” doesn’t quite do justice to Monte Hellman’s duo of sadly fatalistic fugues released in 1966, soon to become cult icons when their casts went on to fame and infamy, in some order. These two films have the bracing mystique of unidentified film-like objects without precedent or successor; even the most famous film in the acid sub-genre, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s four-years-later release El Topo, suggests the toxicity of these 1966 progenitors but not their distressed, cloudy desolation. If El Topo was a disobedient, hallucinatory nonsense-poem that corroded society’s expectations for the Western, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are already themselves corroded.
With meaning and exposition of any kind drip-fed in these parched films that seem to search not valiantly but vacantly for an oasis of purpose, the duo of 1966 works is much like the time period in America that produced them: misplaced, adrift, not so much looking for an escape route as wondering what any version of escape might mean in the first place. Within, explosions of corporeal violence are pitiless stanzas, not a celebration but a sad, fragile false-reprieve from the poem of meditative delirium that characterizes Hellman’s vision of America in the ‘60s. Most Westerns either flourish in bold, brazen new worlds to dive into and relish (worlds of possibility and linear progress) or wax nostalgic in stoic lament for the past (worlds of linear loss over time). Hellman’s vision of wasted space and almost timeless voids is neither; in fact, that “time” moves linearly at all is questionable in works that approach us as swampy stillwater, with “motion” not so much suggesting a straight line as an errant flailing around without direction at all.
Instead, these two films evoke the 1960s as a twilight hour trapped in a liminal space between old ways and new beginnings, the latter serving as theoretically hopeful futures that in their potentially ungraspable cracked-glass casting-adrift of once-accepted values sometimes feel like just the repurposed burnt ends of the past given a shiny new coat of disobedience. For instance, in their ultimately unexciting, trivial violence, Hellman’s two films preload questions about works like The Wild Bunch to come soon after. By denying the balletic grace and sense of coital climax found in the violence of The Man With No Name trilogy or the soon-to-come The Wild Bunch, Hellman’s work asks whether the supposed newness of the revisionist Western sub-genre, nominally a screed against the old ways, was actually little other than a new fount of violence-poetry that was no more able to escape masculine poetics than the very films the new model of the genre notionally rejected.
In a theme Hellman would revisit to even greater success in his masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop, his pair of Westerns suggests that the liberating freedom of collective anarchy in the ’60s epitomized by films like The Wild Bunch was perhaps simply a way to re-entrench notions of macho brutality and libertarian alpha-male braggadocio. The ending of The Shooting suggests that one’s antithesis is actually one’s own self, much as Blacktop showcases the falsity of the dichotomy between the classic male of the ‘50s and the new, modern man of the ‘70s who, in cracking the glossy veneer of the old ways, merely replicated the same physical actions unthinkingly. Much like that later film, these two Westerns are bracing in their ferocious emptiness, shocking in their absence of motive or poetics, and ultimately malignantly fascinating in their expression of automaton-like people who seem to act without consideration. While The Wild Bunch would also question the divide between authority and rebellion in the ‘60s, Hellman’s pair of films is in some way even more startling in how it refuses to even clarify which side is which, or whether there are easily demarcated armies, causes, or even thought processes to determine sides at all.
Both of these Westerns replace the bubblegum savagery expected of an acid western with a sordid sojourn into egg-beaten jeopardy, channeling the hazardous sensations of life into askew animated equipoise. Pillaging art cinema to imbue their landscapes with a quality of purgatory absent deliberation, development, logic, or rhythm, the pair of films rely on gruff, raspy visuals rather than fossilized, belabored dialogue to explore the unoccupied, desolate nature of people wandering around with naught but a vague semblance of a clarifying principle for their actions. Character development isn’t neglected but rather cast adrift, diffused in the environment and the tentative, hostile, skeptical ways the characters interact with each other and the world around them. Both films, pieces of a whole pie more than singular individuals, are existentially unanchoring in their refusal to delineate specific events, demarcate causal themes, or crystallize-into-focus the pandemonium of characters ambling around like unknown hosts waiting for the parasites that lurk within them to thrust into action. These are Westerns perhaps, but they’re more likely waiting rooms to hell.
Mood Westerns rather than narratives proper, the pair of films fray the whiskers on a genre that was washed-up by ’66, with the surge of the new-fangled revisionist variant of the genre still waiting to pounce later in the decade. In between the classic Western and the new-school knuckle-duster, Hellman carves out space to simply explore, to both scrutinize the fallout of the old style and to interrogate the new, often too-literal approach to “realism” in the future of the genre. Stylistically, he rejects either the mythic grandeur of the earlier John Ford style or the illusionary pseudo-realism of many of the later, harsher films, instead suggesting a limbo of empty, circular space to move around in and never actually get anywhere, a sort of third-way between the poetic abstraction of the earlier style and the harsh brutality of the latter.
Within, the films’ most disarming gestures are their absences, their rejection of clarification. We get a violent efficiency of top-level information (names, places, minutiae) imparted without corollary stakes-raising or conflict situating, with new characters thrown into the fray unceremoniously and without explanation of who they actually are or why any of this matters. The matter-of-fact hell-raising in the films strings along events without accompanied psychological banter to suffuse the character’s souls with explanation, interpretation, or signification. Ultimately, the pair of films are left, like a cowboy grasping for the sand in an empty display of significance for a fallen comrade, to try to channel all these disparate, decontextualized images into a search for meaning that slips between their fingers as soon as they grasp it.
The effect is to fill-in the spaces with quotidian physicality devoid of mentality, imparting a world of materials that feel brutally lacking in magnitude, gravity, or consequence. The works are unsettling in this inexplicable disillusionment and futility, with quests and narratives that feel un-stitched from the ground, as if the physical detail is so hollow – so devoid of inlaid motive – that one breath could topple the whole surface façade the characters have erected for themselves. Obviously prefiguring Jim Jarmusch’s infamous Dead Man, the films induce a Western scrawl or sketch, the countenance of a Western without the tone or the essence, as if all of the genre’s “stuff” has been bled dry and we’re simply watching people pantomiming the idea of a Western with the surfaces intact but the meaning scrambled or turned to ash. Rather than cutting through the earth in search of a figment of prey, the films (especially the brutally unnerving The Shooting, with its ur-Western title) reveal the Western odyssey to be little more than running around in a circle, hunting down a simulacrum of meaning that proves constantly elusive, even illusory.
Rather than absorbing layer upon layer of kaleidoscopic surrealism (adopting a maximalist style), the few flickers of outré color and brazen imagery we do see impart filigrees of passionate dreaminess that, for the characters, may suggest unfulfilled desire and a more buoyant, uninhibited life unfastened from the doldrums of perpetual-motion emptiness. With every character always skulking, prowling, questing, crossing the landscape in search of goals that seem as arbitrary to them as they do to us, actual surrealistic liberation from grounded lethargy transforms into another oasis of purpose to search for, if only because it might clarify the reason for the purposeless narrative to begin with by giving it a style and a school of thought.
Hellman never gives into the desire to clarify or give in to “surrealism” though; his films invoke passive, blunt weariness rather than active freedom from it, with the surrealism floating in not through frazzled, outré imagery but through the dreamy confluence of quotidian imagery (boots, dirt, cowboy hats) and that no explanation or meaning is given to any of it. The visual signifiers of Western meaning are torn asunder and enervated until they are little more than mere physical, primal objects. Doubts that anything other than blind chance and circumstance govern this land are mollified almost immediately in the narrative of the first film, Ride in the Whirlwind, where three cowboys are unwaveringly flagged for removal by a posse when the three are mistaken for members of a gang simply because they stopped over for a night with said gang. When two are slaughtered, a member of the posse intones “what about the other one?”; the other one rides off in the conclusion, not to exultant valiance or escape or even melancholy, but simply to another round of hunting and wandering, another go around the sun.
The films’ reputations today rest primarily on then-underground stars Jack Nicholson (co-producing both and writing Rise in the Whirlwind as well), Warren Oates, and Harry Dean Stanton, all in the wild, formative years of their careers, Nicholson here before hooking up with Hellman’s travelling companions Bob Rafelson and the mad cats at the fabled BBS Production Studios. Nicholson applies his wild and woolly style to a remarkably casual depiction of barely-subsumed discontent, registering an inductive figure whose digressive actorly tangents and ticks suggest an incomplete person, a bag of physical demeanors that don’t coalesce into a character. Here, as he would in so many later, more baroque performances, he galvanizes the unformed nature of his characters in harsh strokes as he, like everyone, stumbles around ostensibly in hope of completing himself. It is an imprecise scrawl of a performance rather than a deliberate, thoughtful character, but in films that question the legitimacy of the latter in the Western landscape, the actor’s style cottons to the screenplays immediately. The nooks and crannies of his performance style emerge as suggestions of a person opening up holes for motive to fall in.
Ultimately, the overarching tone is one of absurdism as a fount for existential terror rather than silly farce. Characters lack governing rationality, events are a fracas and a fiasco rather than a progression or a rising and falling of action according to familiar flows or cadences. Parsimonious exposition is evasive and deposed of pride of place, with lines of reasoning doled out without comment or explication, almost as if no one in the films can truly express their present-tense or how they got there. It’s as though the meaning of the actions – if they have any, of course – defeats even the films, themselves on a desperate odyssey for justification in a world seemingly excised of structure or context; we’re left with a cross-hatch of sensations and perceptions rather than reasons or rhymes.
In many ways, these films are the inverse of the philharmonic, baroque hot-box of Sergio Leone’s similarly tactile, feel-piece Westerns where characters similarly function according to impulse and reflex rather than as vessels for backstory or motive imparted in the screenplay. While those films were ever kindling into more uninhibited beasts of feral fury, this dyad likewise elides the centralized narrative format of most Westerns but down-tunes the tone toward pitiless, empty roasting under the sun-scorched film grain. Both of Hellman’s films are compact, but the fascinating vacuity of the imagery and the nonattendance of character psychology is simply the top-soil hiding the fraught peril undertow. With so few films braving the crevices opened up here, Hellman’s work feels like patient zero for an alternate, unfulfilled future of cinema.
Score: 9/10 (both)